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Presidential Race

Wisc. Recall: A Trial Run For The Presidential Race

Originally published on Sun June 3, 2012 5:25 pm

Voters in Wisconsin will decide Tuesday whether or not to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. It's been one of the most expensive statewide races in American history, and the stakes in that election could have national implications, for unions, for deficit hawks, for businesses, even for President Obama's re-election.

The vote over whether to recall Walker is so important, it's drawn millions in outside money and some of the biggest political stars in the country. Now millions of dollars are flowing in, too.

"The dollar figures that were thrown around here are just astronomical in terms of Wisconsin's history," Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

"The old record for [the] governor's race in terms of money raised by a candidate was about $10 million," Johnson says. "And that was set in 2010 by Gov. Scott Walker. He's now raised $31 million dollars in about a year and a half."

Walker has no problem raising money; under Wisconsin laws the incumbent doesn't have to abide by the usual campaign finance contribution limits. Tom Barrett, his Democratic challenger, does.

"People can't give him more than $10,000 a pop, and he's raised about $4 million in the cycle," Johnson says. "Normally we'd be talking about that being [a] record-setting pace, but he's getting killed in Wisconsin, he's getting killed on the airwaves, because the governor has just destroyed all records."

A Rallying Cry For Republicans

"If Walker wins, [the] recall will be the best thing that ever happened to him," Johnson says. He'll be a national figure, not only because he survives but because of the issue he's running on."

"This is an issue that other governors have flirted with, and he's kind of taken it head on," Johnson says. "If he were to survive, it'd be big."

If Walker survives, Republican governors around the country have said it will be a turning point — a referendum in a sense, on whether they, too, can confront public sector unions and make huge spending cuts.

Walker's survival has become a rallying cry for Republican leaders across the country, and some have even rallied to his side. South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley hit the stump last week, and Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal has also come through the state. So has Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and one of the most popular Republicans in the country.

Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has asked his backers to donate to Walker's campaign. Cuccinelli, a rising star in the Republican Party, is running for governor and holds a significant lead in the polls. On Tuesday, he'll be watching Wisconsin closer — quite possibly — than he ever has before.

"Scott Walker's recall election is the second most important election in America this year," he tells NPR's Raz. "The only one more important is the presidential election in November."

It's not just about unions, Cuccinelli says, it's pension problems at the state level and entitlements at the federal level. "It's related to all these types of problems because the theme is the same: We have to make painful changes."

"In order to make sure that our country doesn't go bankrupt it is very important for Scott Walker to win this election," Cuccinelli says, "not just for Wisconsin, but for America."

The White House Watches

Obama has been notably absent from the Wisconsin fight. He's endorsed Walker's opponent Tom Barrett, but otherwise, he's been quiet.

But the White House is watching Wisconsin closely, because in many ways, it's a trial run for the presidential race — big money coming in from outside groups, and a referendum on spending.

"I think it's like the Spanish Civil war was to World War II, where both sides got to try out their weapons," NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson tells Raz.

"This is going to be seen as a test case for the power and clout of the superPACs. Walker's raised tremendous amounts of outside money, which he's allowed to do under the law," she says. "So if he wins, I think the message will be the superPACs have a tremendous advantage.

"If he loses, I think will mean even more," she says. "I think it will be a huge boost to the Democrats, to the labor movement, and it'll mean that the superPACs can't buy everything."

But if Walker does survive, what does that mean for Obama? The president won Wisconsin by a pretty healthy margin in 2008, but Republicans swept the state in 2010.

"But the polls show President Obama still has a lead there," Liasson says. "It still is on the list of most people's battleground states; the Republicans believe that if Walker wins, Wisconsin automatically becomes a gettable state for Mitt Romney."

Combine that with the disappointing job numbers out last week, and things don't look good for Obama.

"When you think about this election — which was and is tied, it's a dead heat — and then you think about all of the external factors that could affect it: the economy, jobless rate, Europe, Wisconsin recall, Supreme Court health care decision, and put them all on a list, you can only think of things that will affect this race badly for the president," Liasson says.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, back to our cover story - and we're talking Wisconsin today - the recall vote and why many political leaders - Republican and Democrat - say that with the exception of the presidential race, the vote over whether to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the most important election this year.

So important, it's drawn millions in outside money and some of the biggest political stars in the country, including former President Bill Clinton who hit the campaign trail Friday for Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee who is hoping to unseat Scott Walker.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: If you don't show up and vote, will say, see, we got them now. We're finally going to break every union in America. We're going to break every government in America. We're going to stop worrying about the middle class. We don't give a rip whether poor people get to work their way into it. We got our way now. We got it all. Divide and conquer works. You tell them no.

RAZ: And so how did this all start to unravel for Scott Walker? He was elected governor in 2010 on a promise to reign in spending. Well, here's Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson with more.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: People first started talking about the idea of a recall about a year and a half ago after Governor Scott Walker introduced his bill to curb public employee union bargaining rights. I remember in the first week of the massive protest that erupted here, you could hear chants of recall Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Recall Walker. Recall Walker.

JOHNSON: And back then, you know, it seemed sort of - and it was sort of fanciful to Democrats, but it slowly became a reality.

RAZ: And over the winter, Wisconsin organizers, backed by unions, gathered more than 900,000 signatures on petitions that would eventually trigger this Tuesday's election.

JOHNSON: And so here, we find ourselves in a very abbreviated campaign in the middle of summer and a campaign that everybody's watching.

RAZ: Shawn, here's what I don't get. Scott Walker did campaign on the promise of closing a three-and-a-half-billion-dollar deficit, saying that he was going to ask public employees to, you know, to basically give up part of their pensions. I mean, he said what he was going to do, so why was there this recall effort almost immediately after he was inaugurated?

JOHNSON: He said he was going to balance the budget. He didn't provide a lot of details. He did say that he was going to look at pensions for public employees. He's been consistent on that, but he never talked about ending collective bargaining rights, and that was a shocker. And when he has described it to people candidly, he's referred to it as dropping the bomb.

RAZ: So many people in Wisconsin felt like they were duped. I mean, Walker basically came in and said, oh, by the way, we're going to end collective bargaining rights. And, sorry, but that's the way it's going to be. And a lot of people said, wait a minute. You didn't say you were going to do that.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it was introduced on a Friday afternoon, the governor wanted the legislature to move on it pretty quickly the next week. And it didn't work out that way. We had - our Senate Democrats left Wisconsin. That held up the vote in the Senate because they didn't have a quorum needed to pass it for a while. And the, you know, the place just went nuts. We had tens of thousands of people at regular rallies, people living in the capital for a few weeks. That didn't calm down for a while.

RAZ: Shawn, explain how much money has poured into this campaign.

JOHNSON: The dollar figures that were thrown around here are just astronomical in terms of Wisconsin's history. The old record for a governor's race in terms of money raised by a candidate was about $10 million, and that was set in 2010 by Governor Scott Walker. He's now raised $31 million in about a year and a half. You know, he just raised about $5 million in a month.

Raising money is not an issue for him right now, partly because when there's a recall going on under our laws, the incumbent doesn't have to abide by our usual campaign finance contribution limits. Tom Barrett, his Democratic challenger, does have to abide by those limits. People can't give him more than $10,000 a pop. And he's raised about $4 million in the cycle.

Normally, we'd be talking about that being record-setting pace, but he's getting killed in Wisconsin. He's getting killed on the airwaves because the governor has just destroyed all records.

RAZ: So, Shawn, I read that something like $62 million will be spent on this campaign by both sides, including the candidates and outside interest groups, for a recall election for a governor from Wisconsin, which is not California or New York. I mean, we're not talking hugely expensive media markets. Describe what the onslaught is like. I mean, are you just bombarded with ads on radio and TV and on billboards and newspapers all the time?

JOHNSON: If you watch your local TV news, you know, in between the news, it's pretty steady stream of candidate commercials, both from the governor, from Democratic challenger Tom Barrett and from the interest groups. It's just constant.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: Hi. I'm Scott Walker.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: With Tom Barrett as mayor, Milwaukee unemployment has gone up 28 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not voting on June 5th...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...is the same as voting for Scott Walker.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I've got some bad news for Tom Barrett, but good news for Wisconsin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They uncovered a secret email network set up by Walker's aides.

WALKER: Help me oppose the recall, and let's use the foundation we've built to keep moving Wisconsin forward.

RAZ: Presumably, the Democrats - or some Democrats - are worried that if Scott Walker survives this recall vote, it will look bad for President Obama and for Democrats.

JOHNSON: It is definitely high-stakes politics. A recall is something - for a governor is something that's never happened here in Wisconsin. It's only the third nationally. So it's not a step that people have taken lightly. You know, Democrats really wanted to get Governor Scott Walker out now and not wait the full four-year terms. They felt strongly enough to take this extraordinary step.

At the same time, if Walker wins, the recall would be the best thing that ever happened to him because he's immediately a national figure because of that. Not only because he's the only governor to ever defeat a recall effort or to survive a recall effort, but because of the issue that he's running on. This is an issue that other governors have flirted with, and, you know, he's kind of taken head on. And if he were to survive, it'd be big.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson. He covers state politics from Madison.

Now, the latest polls show Scott Walker with a slight lead over Tom Barrett. And as you might have guessed, voters in Wisconsin are sharply divided.

We sent producers out to two places in the state to talk to some of those voters - to Sussex, a heavily Republican suburb outside Milwaukee, and to Madison, a Democratic stronghold. First to Madison now where anti-Walker activists have been gathered on the steps of the statehouse all week.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Walker won't be governor, some day, some day soon.

MARIE MARTINI: My name is Marie Martini. Our state is being destroyed. I'm a grandmother. My grandchildren are seventh-generation Wisconsin people, and I'm not giving them the state that I had. And I'm an educator. My students don't have enough food. In America, in Wisconsin, kids are hungry? Kids are living out of a car? It's shameful. And if something doesn't happen, we'll be destroyed. It will go to the very rich and the very poor, and there won't be middle class anymore.

CATHERINE CAPILLERO: Catherine Capillero(ph). Well, I think that Scott Walker has been able to - with the Republican majority - has been able to really undo 50 years of labor peace here in Wisconsin, in the state that pioneered collective bargaining. And it's not just about collective bargaining. I've got kids in the schools that are suffering right now from budget cuts. And I just think that our state is not ready to be given away to powerful corporate interests.

RAZ: Voices of Wisconsin voters in Madison. Now to Sussex, outside the town post office where almost everyone seemed to back the governor.

GRIZ STRAUB: Griz, last name is Straub. But Walker's doing a damn good job. Best thing he's done? Keep the taxes the same and lower them. And there is jobs available. Just - people just got to go get them. The jobs are there, but you still - to keep working, we had to take a pay cut, which my boss was - I said that's fine. As long as I still got a job, I don't care. I'll take a 5 percent discount. No big deal. Instead of all these guys paying - giving them all these fancy bonuses. For what? What do I get? Nothing. Why should I pay for somebody else's retirement fund when I got to pay for my own?

KRIS CHAHALSKI: I'm Kris Chahalski(ph). It's just not quite fair that while other people are doing more and giving more, there's those that have these pensions that pretty much make them very comfortable. And some of us work and work and work and we just don't have that. And let's use teachers, for example. Some of the teachers in the schools are great, deserve what they're getting, and some of them just plain stink. And they have a union backing them no matter what they do. They stay in their jobs, and they shouldn't be there. So those are a couple of the reasons.

RAZ: Voices of Wisconsin voters in Sussex, just outside Milwaukee. Now, if Scott Walker survives the recall, Republican governors around the country have said it will be a turning point, a referendum in a sense on whether they, too, can confront public sector unions and make huge spending cuts.

We asked Bruce Colburn, a leader with the Wisconsin branch of the Service Employees International Union, about what Walker's victory will mean for unions in the state and even nationally.

BRUCE COLBURN: It'll hurt. I mean, one of the first things Scott Walker did when he talked about that he's going to do something about state workers, he included workers from our University of Wisconsin world class hospital, which had nothing to do with the state. He did away with the rights to bargain of home care workers who only make eight or $9 an hour, who have nothing to do, really, with the state, aren't state workers. So certainly, it will be a blow. But we're determined that whatever we have to rebuild, we will rebuild.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Coming up on the program, we'll speak with a rising star in the Republican Party on why Scott Walker represents something much bigger than this election alone, and later, Mara Liasson will explain what it could mean for the Obama administration. Stay with us. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

So we just heard from voters in Wisconsin, but, in fact, the race has become a national story, a story that could mark a turning point for public sector unions and for deficit hawks. And Scott Walker's survival has become a rallying cry for Republican leaders across the country. South Carolina's Governor Nikki Haley has hit the stump...

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: All eyes across our country are on Wisconsin.

RAZ: ...Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal's come through the state...

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: He has been a great leader for Wisconsin. He's been a great leader for America.

RAZ: ...so has Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and one of the most popular Republicans in the country.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: When tens of thousands of people crowded your statehouse, disrupted your government and tried to scare Scott Walker, Scott Walker stood with you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has asked his backers to donate to Scott Walker's campaign. Cuccinelli is a rising star in the Republican Party. He's running for governor next year. And right now, he holds a significant lead in the polls. And on Tuesday, Ken Cuccinelli will be watching Wisconsin closer - quite possibly closer - than he ever has before.

ATTORNEY GENERAL KEN CUCCINELLI: Scott Walker's recall election is the second most important election in America this year, and the only one more important is the presidential election in November. Because we face some very severe, especially financial, challenges in government at every level right now that if Scott Walker can't implement the kind of changes he has and survive the electoral storm that has come, the self-preservation instincts of politicians are going to overwhelm the need to solve our problems. And that would be a sad thing for America.

RAZ: I mean, essentially, what you're saying is that if he doesn't survive, other governors won't feel emboldened to take on public employee unions. If he does win, governors around the country who want to take on unions will?

CUCCINELLI: You're focusing in just on unions, but you also have pension problems in states. At the federal level, we have entitlement reform. It's related to all of these types of problems because the theme is the same. We have to make painful changes. We're going to have less of this service and that service in order to fund our pensions, in order to make sure that they're actuarially sound, in order to make sure that our country doesn't go bankrupt. It is very important for Scott Walker to win this election, not just for Wisconsin, but for America.

RAZ: Attorney General Cuccinelli, you, of course, are going to be running for governor of Virginia next year. If Scott Walker survives this recall, how might that influence your role if you win as governor? How might that influence the way you carry out your job?

CUCCINELLI: Well, I think I'm probably already in the category of people who campaign very clearly on what they want to do and then attempt to pursue it. So in terms of the bluntness factor, I'm already there. But it will - nobody does anything alone, including Governor Walker. I mean, he needed allies in his legislature, and I'll need allies in my legislature if I'm able to get elected governor in Virginia. And you need a team. And often, ideally, usually, that would be a bipartisan team.

This message that I've talked about isn't just for Republicans. It's about the financial survival, stable financial survival of our state governments and of our federal government. That's all wrapped up in Governor Walker's recall election. And again, that's why it's so important that he win.

RAZ: That's Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. He's running for governor of the state next year.

Now, President Obama has been notably absent from the Wisconsin fight. He's endorsed Walker's opponent, Tom Barrett, but otherwise, he's been quiet. But the White House is watching Wisconsin closely because in many ways, it's a trial run for the presidential race - big money coming in from outside groups and a referendum on spending. Here's the analogy NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson makes.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I think it's like the Spanish civil war was to World War II where both sides got to try out their weapons. This is going to be seen as a test case for the power and clout of the superPACs. Walker's raised tremendous amounts of outside money, which he's allowed to do under the law, about $30 million. So if he wins, I think the message will be the superPACs have a tremendous advantage. If he loses, I think it will mean even more. I think it will be a huge boost to the Democrats, to the labor movement, and it'll mean that the superPACs can't buy everything.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. If Scott Walker survives this recall, what does it mean for President Obama in Wisconsin in the fall? Does it mean anything?

LIASSON: If you talk to people at the White House, they say it means nothing at all. People who turn out in the primary are not the same as the people who will turn out in November. Obviously, you have a much bigger electorate in a presidential race. President Obama won Wisconsin by a pretty healthy margin in 2008.

Granted, Democrats in the past had won it by smaller margins, and, of course, Republicans roared back in 2010 to sweep Wisconsin. But the polls show that President Obama still has a lead there. It still is on most people's list of battleground states. The Republicans believe that if Walker wins Wisconsin automatically becomes a gettable state for Mitt Romney. And I think that one practical effect of the recall, regardless of whether Walker wins or loses, is that it's helped the Republicans on the ground in Wisconsin. They didn't have much in the way of voter lists and a get-out-the-vote turnout operation before this. They do now.

RAZ: You combine that strategy with very bad jobless figures this past week and things are not looking good for President Obama.

LIASSON: They're really not. And when you think about this election, which was and is tied - it's a dead heat - and then you think about all of the external factors that could affect it - the economy, jobless rate, Europe, Wisconsin recall, Supreme Court health care decision - you put them all on the list, you can only think of things that will affect this race badly for the president. You can't see any potential extraneous events that will make it better for him. So, yes, I would say the president is definitely the underdog in this race. The jobs numbers didn't help him. And I don't think that a victory for Scott Walker on Tuesday will help him either.

RAZ: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson on the Wisconsin recall vote and its national implications. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.